When To Lead And When To Follow

The Inner Workings Of Group Timekeeping

by Jeremy Hummel

concepts-by-jeff-harrityThere are three ways to keep time when you play with an ensemble. One is to lead, another to follow, and the third is something often referred to as “band time.” Let’s take a look at each of these and see how the role of the drummer can differ.

Leading a unit in terms of time is the traditional and most common role of the drummer. The band is relying on you to be “the rock,” the foundation. The other players depend on you to provide the pulse and the groove.

In this situation, the feel of the band is generally solid, assuming the drummer is solid. At times, however, there can be a feeling of disconnect, as there’s the potential for other members to rely too much on the drummer for the time. As Thelonious Monk once said, “Just because you’re not the drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.”

This approach involves relinquishing your position as time controller to someone else. In these instances, you may not be feeling the music as you would like to, but you have to sacrifice some of your comfort for the greater good. If you’re a musician who works with many different artists or does a lot of fill-in gigs, it can be challenging to constantly place yourself at the mercy of another player’s perception of time.

There have been many instances on gigs where I became frustrated by how much the other musicians were pushing or pulling me. It’s important, however, to understand that tempo issues aren’t always the fault of the other players. Perhaps their meter is good but they’ve spent years performing with drummers who had bad time, which forced them to adapt.

On the nights when I’ve had to give in to someone else’s tempo, I’ve realized that few people in the crowd, if anyone at all, would perceive the song as too fast. If the band sounded tight and was playing together, then everything would seem just fine. Conversely, if I had selfishly held my ground, then the tension in the music would have definitely stood out.

During a conversation with Andy Seal, a bassist I play with often, he brought up an experience that illustrates what can happen when musicians refuse to make sacrifices for the greater good of the music. In his words: “For the last eight years I’ve been the bassist for a Sunday jazz workshop, where it’s a given that the bassist and drummer will provide the appropriate support. Nevertheless, I have learned that some musicians will still come to the gig with their own ideas and musical senses. When I have guest drummers sit in, their sense of time is the first thing I notice.

“One day a drummer sat in to play a fast samba. When I play a fast samba, I like to push it forward and stay very much on top of the beat. When I did this, the band followed me, but the drummer scowled and almost stopped the song—a big no-no—to tell me that I was rushing, even though I wasn’t. Because of the arrogance between us, this drummer and I failed to communicate. But we could’ve found a common ground in seconds, and everything would have been fine.”

The best gigs are those where there’s trust and respect among the musicians. I personally wouldn’t let just anyone dictate the mood or tempo of a song, but if a certain level of trust is present, it’s great fun when the drummer can act as a painter, as opposed to always being the canvas.

I once took a few students to see Steve Smith with Vital Information. Afterward we were all reeling over Smith’s stellar performance. That’s when I felt it necessary to point out the excellence of the other musicians in the group. I explained that each band member must have an impeccable sense of time in order to allow Steve to break away from the groove and solo so freely.

I have also learned over the years that some people don’t always want rock-solid time behind their solos, feeling it can sometimes restrict them from expressing their ideas freely. Here’s another jazz-workshop anecdote from Andy Seal:

“There’s a drummer in our area, Lou Feist, who I love to play with. Lou can play with great time when he has to. To some listeners, his drumming style may seem simplistic on the surface. But when I play with him, I hear things in his pulse that are very free and moving—he uses the pulse as part of his musical expression. To play alongside him you have to listen to what he’s playing, where he’s going, and what he’s feeling.

“One of my favorite experiences of playing a bass solo was with Lou on Cole Porter’s ‘Could It Be You?’ We let go of the time, which was very liberating and brought forward the emotional power of the song. Then I realized that this is nothing more than a performance effect that European soloists, composers, and conductors have used for centuries. It’s called rubato, and it means freely accelerating and decelerating the tempo. Rubato can be very effective when used subtly on slower, more dramatic pieces. Tunes such as Miles Davis’s ‘Blue In Green’ and Charles Mingus’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ are examples of songs that can benefit from a freer tempo.”

Suppose a bandmate starts a song that’s way too slow or fast. How do you reel in the groove and return the tempo to where it needs to be? You have to make adjustments gradually. It may take awhile—say, from the intro to the first chorus—to methodically pull or push the time to its proper pulse. The trick is to recognize the spots in the composition where you can adjust the tempo without it being obvious.

Suppose the tempo gets pushed in a natural place such as the chorus. There is usually a re-intro or “A” section without vocals before the next verse begins. This period, which is typically two or four bars long, is a good time to gradually realign the tempo. If you waited to make adjustments until the vocal came back in, the time shift would be more noticeable because of how the vocals are phrased.

The key word when discussing tempo shifts is gradually. My goal is to be slick enough, whether I’m playing live or in the studio, that even my bandmates don’t notice. An engineer once told me, “The thing I like about you is that if you do get off the click, you know where to resolve.”

This is the summit. Here, the band breathes as one unit, one entity. No one in this situation is leading or following, and that’s what many musicians strive for. But even among the greatest players, it’s not present all the time.

When this cohesive group groove does happen, there’s sometimes a floating, fuzzy feeling that comes with it. Nothing is forced. Instead of the time having rough edges, the pulse just glides along and everyone is in the zone.

There are many recorded examples of great band time. One is Jeff Buckley’s now-classic album Grace. Buckley’s vocals are what most people cite as the greatness in the record. But the chemistry among the musicians was magical as well. The music contains not only amazing dynamics but also moments where the band holds on a chord and waits for Buckley’s reentry. They do this seamlessly, with everyone breathing together.

Another example of great band time is Stuff’s Live At Montreux 1976. The band, with Steve Gadd on drums, includes some of the finest session musicians of the era. The music on this record is a plethora of styles wrapped into one—funk, jazz, blues, gospel… It has it all.

A third example is the song “Polly Come Home” from the award-winning album Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Recorded with no click, this tune is played at about forty beats per minute. The amazing thing is that drummer Jay Bellerose plays only on beats 1 and 4 of each six-beat measure, and the band is as smooth as silk.

Of all musicians, drummers work the hardest on their time. It’s our job and our primary role. Yet it’s when all of the musicians in a group are connected to the same universal pulse that the music can flow effortlessly. Sure, there will always be times when we need to call an audible and make sacrifices to help the tune sound good. In the end, it’s the music that matters.

Jeremy Hummel was an original member of Breaking Benjamin. He helped that group achieve platinum status with its second release, We Are Not Alone. He has since turned his efforts to session work and drum instruction in Pennsylvania. Jeremy can be reached at his Web site,